At once an intense mystery and a revealing study of two men, a veteran homicide detective and an innercity crack dealer, on opposite sides of an endless war. Clockers is "powerful . . . harrowing . . . remarkable" (The New York Times Book Review).
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 12, 1949
Place of Birth:Bronx, New York
Education:B.A., Cornell University, 1971; M.F.A., Columbia University
Read an Excerpt
STRIKE spotted her: baby fat, baby face, Shanelle or Shanette, fourteen years old maybe, standing there with that queasy smile, trying to work up the nerve. He looked away, seeing her two months from now, no more baby fat, stinky, just another pipehead. Her undisguised hunger turned his stomach, but it was a bad day on his stomach all around, starting with the dream about his mother last night, with her standing in the window looking at him, pulling the shades up and down, trying to signal him about something, then on to this morning, being made to wait for an hour in the municipal building before anyone bothered to tell him his probation officer was out sick, then Peanut this afternoon not respecting two-for-one hour, and now, right here, some skinny white motherfucker coming on to The Word, trying to buy bottles, The Word looking to Strike like, "What do I do?" Strike turned away, thinking, "You on you own, I told you that," his stomach glowing like a coal, making him want to go into a crouch to ease the burn.
Strike was seated on the top slat of his bench, his customary perch, looming over a cluster of screaming kids, pregnant women and too many girls, drinking vanilla Yoo-Hoo to calm his gut, watching The Word try to think on his feet. The white guy, a scrawny redhead wearing plaster-caked dungarees and a black Anthrax T-shirt, looked too twitchy and scared to be a knocko, but you never knew. Knockos making street buys usually came in colors, or at least Italian trying to be Puerto Rican, but not piney-woods white, and they usually acted cool or sneaky, not jumpy. The guy was probably a customer for real, but it was The Word's call — on-the-job training.
The guy took out a twenty for two bottles. Strike watched The Word thinking, thinking, finally saying, "Go change it for singles." Strike shook his head: Marked bills, Jesus, they ain't gonna go to the trouble of using marked bills to make a case on a two-bottle buy from a fifteen-year-old boy. A kid getting busted for that would probably get revolved at Juvenile and be back at the benches before the dinner-hour lull was over, right on time for the heavy night traffic when he was really needed.
The white guy nodded and loped away, looking for a mini-mart, the twenty-dollar bill sticking up out of his fist like a flower. Nobody would take him off with Strike here on the bench rolling the Yoo-Hoo bottle between his palms, but Strike knew that if he was to go take a leak, the guy would be lying in the grass with a crease in his hat. Rodney had said it: most niggers out here want all the money now. They kill the golden goose, the return customer, because they never see past the next two minutes. A bunch of sneaker dealers: get ten dollars, run out and buy a ten-dollar ring.
Like Peanut earlier in the day, trying to make a little extra selling bottles one for ten instead of two for ten during Happy Hour. On each clip he had been pulling in a hundred instead of fifty, then turning over forty and pocketing sixty, until some pipehead came up to Strike and said, "I thought it be Happy Hour." Strike looked at Peanut now, sulking on the corner, demoted to raising up — looking out for the Fury — a flat twenty-dollar gig, no bottles, no commission. Watching Peanut probe the raw bump on his cheekbone, Strike swung into his usual recitation: Sneaker dealers, pipe-heads, juveniles. Stickup artists, girls, the Fury. You can't trust nobody, so keep your back to the wall and your eyes open — 24, 7, 365.
Strike scanned the canyon walls of the Roosevelt Houses. There were thirteen high rises, twelve hundred families over two square blocks, and the housing office gave the Fury access to any vacant apartment for surveillance, so Strike never knew when or where they might be scoping him out. The best he could do was to get somebody to spot them sneaking into a building from the rear, yell out "Five-oh" so nobody did anything stupid and then just wait for them to get bored and leave.
The Fury consisted of only a handful of cops, and they had half a dozen housing projects to cover so they couldn't hole up for more than an hour. But it was no secret that Andre the Giant had a surveillance apartment too: 3A in 14 Dumont, the apartment Housing couldn't rent out because six children and their grandmother had died in a fire there a year before. Andre was obsessed with the dope crew that worked the Dumont side of the projects, unlike the Fury, who liked hitting the Weehawken side, Strike's side. But Andre was a free-range knocko; he could show up anywhere, anytime, and he could see the benches just fine from Dumont.
Strike's clockers got jumpy if they thought they were being watched. They'd start singing too loud, get into idiotic arguments, let go of the pent-up tension in a hundred dumb ways, becoming a danger both to themselves and to Strike. And then there were the girlfriends to worry about. They were the worst — flirting with other guys in front of their boyfriends, gassing up their heads, starting fights. To Strike, the girls were good for one thing only. The Fury were all male, so if a girl kept her mouth shut, acted like a lady, she could carry two clips down in her panties, another two up top, and the Fury couldn't do anything unless they pulled her into the precinct for a strip search. And it was a lot quicker to serve up bottles out of a bra than to have everybody running in and out of the stash apartment for every ten-dollar sale.
But girls could steal too, just disappear around a corner with the product. They could have a lovers' quarrel, give the dope to a new boyfriend not in the crew, sell it themselves, smoke it themselves. So Strike wasn't up on using girlfriends; he'd rather go slow and steady, get the boys to make the trip up to the apartment, at least for the Fury hours, four to ten. He moved the apartment around every day: knockos can't go through a door without having paper, and by the time they got the paper signed by a judge, the apartment wasn't there anymore.
Girls. Strike always told his crew: "Don't let the girls wrap you around their little fingers. It's just pussy, and if you play your cards right, pussy always be there, and you play your cards right by making the money, then saving it." Strike would say it word for word, just like Rodney said it to him almost a year ago.
Strike watched the baby-fat girl — Sharelle, Sharette, something like that — finally get up for it, walk over to him, a smile pasted on her face like she was happy or something.
"I didn't —"
"No. Go on outa here."
Futon came out of 6 Weehawken scanning the street, eating Cheetos and holding a big jar of Gummi Bears, bobbing his head in time to whatever was coming in over his aqua-blue headphones. He nodded to Strike and walked back to the benches.
"Re-up, re-up," he announced, blaring out the words over the music in his head.
Strike pursed his lips to respond and was startled to feel the sudden seizing up that hit somewhere between his mind and his mouth. "Woo-what you got?"
He hadn't had a stammer attack in weeks: What a goddamn day.
"'Bout forty, forty-five." Futon seemed to ignore Strike's flustered speech.
Strike thought about the night to come, calculating the traffic. It was the twelfth of the month. People still had some money from the mailbox. On the other hand it was Wednesday, five days from the last payday. Strike thought about the weather too: Rain coming, maybe. Two hundred bottles should do it.
Getting up off the bench, legs stiff, Strike limped to the pay phone and rang up Rodney's pager, punching in the code for the day and then a two-zero on the end. The bottles would be coming by bicycle in about fifteen or twenty minutes, the delivery boy just another twelve-year-old zooming by, a kid going into 6 Weehawken with his schoolbooks under his arm and a lunch box. Strike hated beepers, kept his in his pocket, out of sight. It was too obvious, like wearing gold. Besides, everybody had a beeper these days. Strike preferred talking on the phone, mouth to ear — one thing about dope corners, nobody ever vandalized the phones. But Rodney said, Wear your beeper.
Back at the bench, Futon offered him the Gummi Bear jar. Strike waved it away, Futon saying "Lookit," unscrewing the false bottom and revealing a nest of four bottles, his voice a slick murmur: "They sell it on JFK at that smoke shop."
Strike scowled at him. "That's stupid. I-I-If they sell it, the knockos be knowing about it. Soon they see anybody with that, they go right for the bottom, buh-bust your ass." The stammer was coming on strong now, Strike's consternation only making it worse.
Futon got sulky.
"Besides, what you got the Cheetos for too? Tha-that don't look right, two kinds of junk you holdin'."
Futon shrugged. "I don't like Gummi Bears. And they ain't coming back for a month anyhow, right?"
The day before, Futon had raced one of the Fury, a knocko named Thumper, and beat him by twenty feet. The Fury had said that if Futon won the race they'd lay off for thirty days — just a joke, but now Futon was acting like it was bonded and true. And Futon was Strike's second in command.
The baby-fat girl started talking to The Word, saying something Strike couldn't hear but knew was flirty because The Word started to dance around and grin like a fool. The girl was trying to mooch, a bottle, and The Word would have given it up in a minute if Strike wasn't here. Always had to be here, always. He thought of telling Futon to go over and tell that girl he was going to tell her mother, but then decided he wasn't Jesus on a stick. Girl wants to pipe up, it's a free country. As long as she got ten dollars. And if The Word gives up the bottle, then The Word better have ten dollars.
Strike drank some more Yoo-Hoo and massaged his gut. Sweetness coated the pain, lukewarm sweetness now that he'd been holding the bottle between his palms for an hour.
The red-headed white boy came loping back into the semicircle and Strike had a bad feeling. He looked to Peanut, who was watching the street to see if the Fury was playing peekaboo around a corner. Peanut looked to Strike and touched his cheek again. Strike had whacked him good with a full bottle of Yoo-Hoo, and Peanut had fallen down so fast his hat stayed in place right over where his head had been, like in a cartoon. People stealing from him turned Strike's brain red: If somebody pulled something like Peanut did, you had to kick their ass, then put them back on the street. And if they did it again, then you had to really fuck them up bad. And you never, never let that shit slide, because if you did they'd be all over you, them and everybody else, and then the game would be over.
Strike knew he'd done the right thing; Peanut knew it too. But then Strike began to wonder if Peanut would try a little payback now, let the Fury come by without raising up. Can't trust nobody: everybody was dense one minute, devious the next, always talking about being brothers, watching each other's back, but when it came down to it Strike preferred enemies to friends. At least with enemies, you knew what they were right up front. Either way, this business could chew you up, and Strike would do anything to get off the street and just deal weight like Rodney.
The white guy fanned out the singles to The Word as if he wanted The Word to pick a card, any card. The Word swept the bills into his hand, said "Two-oh" to Horace, and Horace vanished into 6 Weehawken.
The Word walked away and the white guy said, "Hey ..." For a minute he stood there alone, blinking and confused, but then Horace came back out of the building holding a crumpled-up paper bag. He dropped it in a garbage can, hissed "Yo" to get the customer's attention, then walked away too. It took a few seconds for the guy to figure it out, but then he snatched up the bag and hustled off toward the street.
It was Strike's idea to move the store to the benches at the edge of the projects. Whites were too scared of walking all the way in and copping their bottles while being surrounded by the towers, too scared that they wouldn't make it back out. Working from the benches also made it a lot easier to spot the Fury when it rolled, especially when the knockos pulled a pincers move, trying to sneak attack from both sides at once.
Strike had suggested it to Rodney, Rodney saying, "Hey, you're the man," letting him run his own show as long as he moved half a kilo a week. And in six months on top out here, Strike had never failed to hit that figure, partly through his vigilant fretfulness, partly through marketing novelties like two-for-one Happy Hours, Jumbos, Redi Rocks and Starter Kits, but mainly because he understood that good product rules. People always knew who had it; all Strike had to do was not get greedy and step on Rodney's bottles when they came in. That way he'd always have the best, because all the other lieutenants stretched out their re-ups by diluting the product. Strike counted on the greed, knowing it would drive all the pipe-heads right to him.
"Five-oh!" Peanut hissed, whirling, spinning on one foot.
Shit. Strike looked past Peanut to the street, saw the knockos still in the car and heard one of them, Crunch, calling to the white guy, "Hey, you!" Strike looked to Horace and The Word, both of them flying back into the building. Strike sat tight, just watched as Crunch stepped out and escorted his grab to the rear of the Fury.
Blasting from the open door was some Rolling Stones garbage, one of the tapes the knockos played in order to get pumped up when they were hunting bounty.
Strike saw Spook and Ahmed walk away as if they had something to hide — wannabes, the only idiots who walked. He heard Big Chief still in the shotgun seat whisper into the hand radio: "Batman Hat guilty, Red Hat guilty." Then Strike saw Smurf and Thumper sneaking up on foot from the Dumont side, closing the pincers, grabbing Spook and Ahmed and throwing them up against the chain fence.
The white guy was pleading with Crunch, yammering, "Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, look listen I'm, look listen," then babbling on about how he was a caulker, how he just got the job this week.
Crunch began cutting a deal right on the street, and Strike heard him say something about "just a desk appearance if you ID the kid who served you." The white guy was barely able to talk, wanting to say so much so fast. He called The Word "stocky" instead of fat: "Stocky kid in a St. Louis Cardinals cap, Officer." Officer, like he was in the army.
Strike, hunched over on his perch, watched Thumper press a splayed palm on Ahmed's chest, saying, "What's up, Yo? Where you going?," saying it with that honking street lisp he liked to use. Trembling and popeyed as if he was really holding, Ahmed squeaked back, "I ain't going nowhere, Thumper!"
"Whatta you so nervous about, Home?" Thumper was already in his pockets, shaking out the snotrag, scrabbling through his vinyl wallet.
"I ain't nervous!" Ahmed sounded like a fire alarm at noon.
"Ya ain't nervous? Feel ya heart!" Thumper squawked, moving his hand on Ahmed's chest, whump whump, as if it was pulsing. He pulled out Ahmed's money — two dollars, a real big-time gangster — then put the bills back in Ahmed's pocket and pulled off his Batman hat, checking inside before flipping it over the fence, into the grass.
Big Chief was giving Peanut the same drill, while Smurf sniffed around the benches, picking up paper bags and looking for bottles, rooting around in the garbage cans like a bum. They all looked like bums, except they were healthy bums, six-foot, two-hundred-pound white bums with lead saps and Clock Nineteens on their hips.
Strike had no idea why, but the Fury definitely had a thing for the Weehawken benches. Knockos, whether Housing, City or County, were just like that, getting fixated on one corner, one building, one dealer, even though their arrest turf took in entire cities. It was known as the Knocko's Prerogative.
"Pea-nut, Pea-nut, gimme some bottles, Pea-nut." Big Chief towered over him, crowding him against the fence. "You ain't no raiser, Pea-nut. Where them bottles?" Then he saw the bang on Peanut's cheek. "You do something bad, Peanut?"
Big Chief turned slowly, looking over to Strike.
Strike stared at his own sneakers, taking a breath, recalling the exercise the speech therapist had taught him back in school: envision a scene that relaxes you, she'd said, and now Strike conjured up a picture of palm trees and ocean, literally a picture, since he had never seen a real palm tree.
"Strike," Big Chief said, "Peanut do something bad?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Clockers"
Copyright © 1992 Richard Price.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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